I propose to take Questions Nos. 82 and 92 together.
Families and family life are undergoing profound and rapid changes in Ireland. The main reasons include the increasing participation of women in employment; difficulties in reconciling work and family life; a growing incidence of marital breakdown and lone parenthood generally; ageing of the population; and the likely growth in the numbers of dependent elderly.
Against this background in May 2003, I began a nationwide consultation on the future development of family policy, five years after publication of the report of the commission on the family. The fora provided my officials and me with an opportunity to hear the views of a cross-section of family members from different regions and those who work with them, including public representatives. Their views were sought on the main challenges that confront families today, the effectiveness of Government policies and programmes in supporting families to meet these challenges, and on what the priorities should be for strengthening families.
The process included workshops on parenting, balancing work and family life, the family as carer and relationships in difficulty. These workshops allowed a more focused examination of the issues and the identification of the supports families need to carry out their important role.
Five fora were held from May to December 2003 in Donegal, Kilkenny, Cork, Galway and Dublin. Reports on each forum meeting and a thematic report that draws together all the issues raised are being finalised. These reports will be launched later this month. Participants at the different fora saw family policy as having a fundamental role in expressing and affirming societal values. Among the values mentioned most consistently as underpinning future policy on the family were respect, choice, balance between work and family, equality, diversity, prevention and early intervention and kinship.
The thematic report is also designed during this, the tenth anniversary of the international year of the family, to facilitate a wide-ranging debate among all interested parties on the future development of policies and programmes to support and strengthen families. In addition, the Irish Presidency, with the support of the European Commission, will host a major international conference, entitled Families, Change and European Social Policy, next May in Dublin Castle. This is designed to initiate an EU-wide debate on how social policies need to be modernised to meet the challenges of the changes affecting families and family life.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
I have received the strategic plan of the Family Support Agency, which I established last May, and this will also be fully taken into account in my ongoing consideration of the future shape of policies for families.
Public opinion, as voiced at the fora, considers that future family policy should develop at two levels. The first is a general level of support and assistance that would be available to all families, especially at critical junctures such as the birth of the first child. The second level of support would be more specialist in that it would address the specific needs of particular families.
Drawing on the views and analysis emerging from this wide ranging consultation process, it is my intention, in consultation with all the relevant Departments and agencies, to have a clear, coherent and comprehensive strategy for family policy prepared by the end of 2004. This will be designed to address the changes taking place for families and family life and to identify priorities for strengthening families in the key contribution they make to the well-being of their individual members and society as a whole.